Street sales, online dealers and convenience stores: Inside the thriving black market for nicotine vapes

I’m pacing the pavement of a dead-end street in Sydney’s inner-west.

It’s overcast and has just started drizzling as my phone rings.

“Hi, I’m a minute away,” a voice on the other end tells me.

I watch as a white sedan turns into the street.

“OK, I’m down the end wearing a black jacket,” I tell him.

The car pulls up and I walk around to the driver’s side window.

A young man hands me a plastic bag and I give him the cash. The whole exchange takes about 30 seconds.

It felt about as shady as it sounds but this is how kids in Australia are getting their hands on illicit nicotine vapes.

“I don’t want to be like a massive snitch, but it’s actually super easy,” 17-year-old Ruby told Four Corners.

“There’s lots of small dealers doing local areas and stuff.

“You go on your phone, you’re like, ‘Can I pick up a vape?’ and they’re like, ’20 minutes’ and you just meet them somewhere and they just hand it to you.

“I think it’s the same as any other drugs. It’s definitely word of mouth.

“Any social media as well.”

Grade 12 student Ruby
Year 12 student Ruby has been struggling with a nicotine addiction.(ABC Four Corners: Nick Wiggins)

Ruby is struggling with a nicotine addiction that started three years ago.

“It’s the last thing you do before you go to sleep. It’s the first thing you do when you wake up. Sometimes you wake up a couple times during the night to hit it,” she said.

“It’s totally got a hold of you and it’s the only thing you think about.”

Booming black market

Vaping is a multi-billion dollar global industry. It’s estimated about 400,000 people now vape in Australia.

In New South Wales alone, one-tenth of the 16-24-year-old population now vape – that number has more than doubled in the space of a year.

This is despite the fact that it is illegal to sell or possess nicotine vapes without a prescription.

An investigation by Four Corners has found there is a thriving black market, fueled by rising demand and a failure to police the rules.

Teenagers are buying cheap, disposable vapes imported from factories in China.

We’ve found illicit sales on social media are rife, with hundreds of suppliers to choose from across Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok.

Vapes sales on social media
Four Corners found many examples of vapes being sold on social media. (supplies)

Many of these dealers use code words and images to illegally sell their products to children and they offer free delivery.

Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at the Australian National University Emily Banks said vaping is harmful to health, particularly for non-smokers and young people.

“They cause addiction. They can cause poisoning and toxicity through inhalation, which can lead to seizures, trauma and burns, lung injury,” she said.

Professor Emily Banks from the ANU National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health.
Professor Emily Banks from the ANU National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health.(ABC Four Corners)

The federal government commissioned Professor Banks and her team to investigate the harms of e-cigarettes. Her report, released earlier this year, is the most comprehensive review of the global evidence so far.

“When we’re talking about addiction in children, e-cigarettes may actually be more dangerous than smoking because they’re much easier to access, they’re much more discreet, you can hide them, and they also have these multiple flavors like that they’re much more appealing to children, and they’re marketed to children,” she said.

“Use of e-cigarettes in that younger age group isn’t about giving up smoking. It’s about a completely new habit.”

NSW Authorities at a convenience store
NSW Authorities have been attempting to crack down on illegal vape sales.(Supplied: NSW Health)

State and federal authorities are targeting the illicit vape market.

NSW Health has raided tobacconists, seizing more than $1 million worth of stock since January.

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